When Work Ends, What Fills the Void

What might a post-work society look like in the US where even our identities and psychological well-being are as tied into our jobs and careers as our economic security?  Derek Thompson offers a great analysis of how great the social transformation could be in The Atlantic this month.

Thompson cites sufficient evidence of a declining employment outlook despite the current recovery, while forecasting the US is not “remotely likely to face 30 to 50 percent unemployment within the next decade.”  One in six prime-age men is either unemployed or out of the workforce. Human labor is not a driver of current economic growth. Real wages of recent college graduates have fallen by 7.7 percent since 2000. New industries tend to be the most labor efficient.  He observes “technology could exert a slow but continual downward pressure on the value and availability of work.”

Thompson wisely analyzes how essential work is within the American culture and psyche. Work provides far more than a paycheck. If there is little or no work, the implications for many individuals and society are profound.

Thompson describes three possible alternative futures to the end of work: 

  • Contingency. In this future an increasing number of people work in multiple, short-term jobs. This is the “free agent” nation becoming mainstream as the “gig economy”.  We would see more people securing employment through online job exchanges like ODesk and Task Rabbit or working as freelancers and independent contractors and small scale entrepreneurs.  In my own recent futures research I concluded this is a high probability future. And if Thompson’s other two scenarios are viable, this contingency scenario will provide the glide path into them.
  • Consumption. Once our material needs are met, we can engage in leisure and entertainment to fill our lives. This works if there is a universal basic income.  I suspect it might require multiple generations before many Americans recover from the Protestant work ethic.
  • Creativity. This scenario is the return of an artisan culture. We see work as a calling and learn to express our ideas and passions through the things we create.  Thompson likes this future scenario as a kinder, more local and satisfying version of America.  He says we might see something like a digital Works Progress Administration to help people find meaningful ways to contribute their talents. As someone who still marvels over examples of this renaissance in the midst of the Great Depression in our public parks and elsewhere, I could be enthusiastic about such an outcome.

Thompson’s article is a worthwhile read.  He thinks like a futurist to move us beyond more commonplace scenarios of robots taking our jobs to what the end of work could mean in all dimensions of our future society. We might have to live by our wits in a contingency economy, but we may also look forward to consuming leisure and expressing our creativity in ways that today's long work days make difficult.